Pity the fine diner who doesn’t imbibe. Wine, spirits and beer are like dance partners in a great meal: enhancing, enriching and just adding another dimension to the fine dining experience. Most replacement partners – fizzy water, a mocktail – can seem, so to speak, to have two left feet. Just not the same.
If you’re a non-alcoholic diner (or a tippler up for a change), rejoice in the ever-imaginative Simon Rogan and the folks at Postcard Teas. For the past six months, Rogan’s signature restaurant, Fera at Claridge’s, has boldly gone where few restaurants have gone before: a ‘fine tea’ drinks menu paired with Rogan’s subtle and inventive Michelin-starred cuisine.
Tea isn’t an obvious fine cuisine partner, not even in the East. The challenge is more pronounced with Western food, which the Postcard Teas website openly acknowledges: ‘A major issue for tea is that it is traditionally served hot. In the West, hot drinks are served only towards the end of a meal.’ There is cold brewing, of course, but what’s gained in aroma and subtlety is often lost in balance and body, particularly when paired with food.
There is a third way, called ambient brewing. Brewed and served at temperatures between 10C and 20C, ambient brewing enables fine tea to keep its aromas as well as its structure. Postcard Teas and Fera vacuum store their teas after brewing and serve them in special glass flasks, which maintains a constant temperature and flavour integrity.
So, those are the technical challenges solved. But does fine tea, however it’s concocted, actually partner with fine cuisine?
Tea can be appreciated much like wine. Tannins, body, complexity, sweetness, umami: all present and accounted for. Chef Rogan and Postcard Teas founder Timothy D’Offay assembled a 5-course pairing, including two starters, two mains and a dessert with a couple of delectable canapés thrown in for good measure. Teas were served in wine glasses and varied in colour from pale straw to light copper; served in this way, the Postcard Teas had the translucent beauty of white and rose wine.
We began with a gently carbonated Spring Darjeeling from Kalimpong, India (£10) with notes of elderflower and peach: light and summery, and a surprisingly lovely pairing with seaweed cracker, lemon sole and sea herbs.
A High Mountain Oolong from Chi Lai, Taiwan (£14) followed. Somewhat fuller bodied and with more pronounced citrus notes, it offered a surprisingly firm counterbalance to the chickpea wafer, sweet cheese and elderflower.
Another oolong (Oriental Beauty, Miaoli, Taiwan) served similar supporting duty matched with cured arctic char, Mylor prawn, bergamot and radish.
When our first meat dish arrived – cylindra beetroot, roe deer, black currant and hemp (gorgeous) – we were slightly surprised to be served a glass of wine (Tom Shobbrook, Barossa Valley, 2014.) Its peppery depth opened up wonders in the roe deer dish. It was a lovely combination, but still we wondered: had we arrived at the outer edge of the tea/fine cuisine envelope?
Hardly. The most interesting tea of the evening arrived next, Undercover Gyokuro from Kagoshima, Japan (£18). The ‘undercover’ is because it’s shaded in the weeks before harvest, intensifying its sweetness and umami. This tea’s drying process makes the tea brittle, producing a tea that is pleasantly cloudy with residue. It was delicious, and it was hard to imagine a nicer match with the halibut cooked in pine, Kenton leeks, parsley and whey.
Perhaps the greatest tea test of the evening came with the belted Galloway beef, calcot onions, malted parsley root and black truffle – a rich, almost treacly main that fairly screamed for a big Bordeaux or chunky Rhone.
What arrived instead was Nannuo Shan Shu Puerh (Yunnan, China). This was the only tea that came with a ‘vintage’, in this case 2006. All puerh teas are thus labelled, reflecting the length of time they are fermented, a process that deepens both flavour and texture. The tea’s earthy, licorice flavour not only stood up to the intensity of the beef dish, it actually brought out grace notes of sweetness and smokiness that a powerful red mighty have bowled over.
With perhaps intentional irony, we finished the evening with an alcohol-derived dessert – Stout ice cream, buckwheat and verjus – matched with Hijiri Black Sun from Aichi, Japan (£18). Roasted in Camden, the roasting gives the tea sweetness and surprising amount of depth yet retains its smoothness: one is reminded somewhat of a good matcha. Only the tea’s name is bittersweet: it was named on the day of David Bowie’s death, reflecting his final album, Blackstar.
All in all, Fera and Postcard Teas provided a subtle, surprising dining experience. As happy tipplers, we’re unlikely to go ‘full tea’ anytime soon, but our palates have definitely been opened to tea’s potential as a fine dining partner. It’s a dance we’ll look forward to again.
The 5-course tasting menu at Fera costs £85 per person. The four ambient brewed teas by Postcard Teas are served in 500ml bottles each (enough for 2 diners) and cost £60 for all 4 teas - Spring Darjeeling £10, Gyokuroesque £18, High Mountain Oolong £14 and Hijiri Black Sun £18.
For more information about Fera at Claridge's and Postcard Teas pairing menu, visit their website here.
To learn more about the fantastic range of teas by Postcard Teas, visit their website here.